What does it sound like?:
First of all… it sounds amazing. Extraordinarily, this 100-minute set by the Brit-jazz tenor sax legend and his regular quartet of the late 60s (Mike Pyne on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass, Spike Wells on drums) was taped on a reel off the desk 53 years ago by the regular soundman, Ted Lyons, at Tommy Whittle’s jazz club at the Hopbine pub in Wembley – yet it sounds very nearly like a multi-track pro live recording that could have been made yesterday let alone a like a pro recording made in the 60s. Tubby had only weeks to go before the collapse at a gig that would put him out of action for most of 1970-71, with a heart transplant required. When he regrouped the band in 1972, he had less than 18 months to live, dying tragically aged 38, having burned every candle going at both ends since bursting onto the then-tiny British modern jazz scene as a bandleader in 1955 (after a brief period as a sideman). Tubby packed a colossal amount of music into those 18 years, and happily a great deal of amateur and broadcast recordings have been filtering out in recent years – generally, as here, with superb and extensive booklet notes from Hayes’ biographer (a perfect storm of history buff, inspired writer and pro saxophonist) Simon Spillett. This release, I suggest, is at the very top end of those posthumous releases – along with ‘Split Kick: Live in Sweden 1972’ and ‘Inclusivity’ (two 1972 free-improv gigs in which he took part) – in terms of musical quality, sound quality, historical importance and physical presentation.
For a jazz pub to even have a PA and soundman put the Hopbine at the top end of that notch-below-Ronnie’s scene in the 60s. Ted Lyons recorded everything and, crucially, was happy to make copies for musicians if they asked – crucially, because in the 1980s he destroyed his collection ‘in a fit of pique’. A few other Tubbs recordings from the venue (from 1965, 1968 and early 1969) have crept out from the 1980s onwards, as have parts of this sensational 23 December 1969 performance – sometimes derived from copies of Lyons’ tapes, sometimes audience recordings. The discographical tale of this gig itself is fiendishly complicated, with parts first appearing in the 80s on an Acrobat label LP – important in the sense that this was the very beginning of the ‘Tubbs revival’, with even his core canon of albums having been long deleted by this point. Spillett notes that that Acrobat album was part of his lifelong journey of discovery and appreciation of Tubby’s music. However, the parts of Lyons’ recording used for previous appearances of tracks on LP and CD came from copies of the show that were either incomplete, were transferred onto poor quality tape or both.
The fabulous Jazz In Britain label – a not-for-profit venture run by enthusiast John Thurlow that aims to present to the public amazing artefacts of 60s/70s British jazz from private collections (often veteran musicians’ own collections) – had established a relationship with bassist Ron Mathewson shortly before he passed on in December 2020. Aside from tapes that he had already given to Thurlow and his associates, mastering maestro Matt Parker and archivist Richard Moore, Ron’s heirs discovered an unmarked reel… and, as in all good stories, it turned out to be gold-dust: a near-complete copy of the 23 December 1969 Hopbine show in pristine sound quality! Only one track was missing (a version of Coltrane’s ‘Veird Blues’, which could be added from a different source) but it also included one track, Hayes’ own ‘Mainly For The Don’, which had not survived on any of the other partial copies of Lyons’ recording. Result! 😀
Astoundingly, as Spillett reveals, Thurlow, Spike Wells (the one surviving member of the Quartet) and others actually had conversations on whether it was justifiable to release the complete show given that bits had already appeared here and there on various (now out of print) LPs and CDs. Once this hopefully temporary moment of madness had passed, the so-blindingly-obvious-it-requires-sunglasses decision was reached: this had to come out.
Thus, 52 years almost to the day, J in B released this stunning glimpse of Britain’s greatest jazzman of the modern school near the end of his ‘middle phase’ (1965-69) – a time when, amazingly from today’s perspective, because of the huge changes in jazz (in both the US and in Britain, with a new generation coming up in London, using new ideas and gabbing all the media attention) and the huge changes in popular music, Tubby Hayes, in his 30s, had almost become a has-been. His last record (bar an easy-listening orchestra LP in 1969), ‘Mexican Green’, had been released in 1967, and even that had been recorded a year earlier. A June 1969 studio set, ‘Grits, Beans & Greens’, had been recorded by the Quartet but its label, Fontana, declined to release it. (It debuted in 2017 alongside, and within, a definite CD box set of Tubbs’ Fontana albums with a colossal booklet by Spillett.) Nothing at all would be released under Tubby’s name in his final years, 1970-73.
That ‘final phase’ would see Tubbs change his approach to playing, moderating (because of his embattled health) the blistering speed and technical wizardry that had gained him critics as much as fans in his 50s/early 60s heyday – and in the process, creating some superb ‘mature’ music under his own name that can now be heard on releases like ‘Split Kick: Live in Sweden 1972’, but he was also happy to try and explore some of the new ideas in jazz – not perhaps fusion, though he did briefly hire a guitarist (Louis Stewart) in early 1969, but certainly free improvisation. Jazz In Britain’s amazing (and beautifully presented, in LP-sized book packaging) 3CD ‘Inclusivity’ set of 1972 live recordings by Splinters (a brief seven-piece supergroup featuring old-schoolers Tubbs and Phil Seamen with free-improvisers Trevor Watts and John Stevens, and others ‘in between’) was released last year and is another crucial piece of the puzzle in Tubby’s ‘lost years’.
I haven’t said much, or anything, about the music contained in ‘Complete Hopbine ’69’ – that’s because (a) I’ve only heard it one and a half times thus far, plus (b) I don’t have the musical chops to review it meaningfully. What I can say is that it floats my boat, it sounds fantastic in every way and will receive many plays chez moi. I’m not generally a saxophone aficionado, but there is some kind of magic to Tubby’s playing – and the playing of everyone else here is terrific, too. Spike Wells tells Spillett that it was, of course, just another gig for them – but he concedes that it does show Tubby ‘near his best’. Many may view this as a conservative appreciation. Wells also says that, in his view, Ron Mathewson had the edge on Dave Holland at that time as a jazz bassist in Britain – and maybe, had Ron been playing (rather than Dave) that night at Ronnie Scott’s when Miles was in the audience, history might have been a little different.
What does it all *mean*?
It means that Tubby Hayes continues to amaze and delight 50 years after his untimely demise – and that the well of unreleased gems is not exhausted.
Goes well with…
The couple of other late-period live releases I mentioned or indeed others that I haven’t). I should also mention the very recent release of ‘Hip! The Untold Story Of Tubby Hayes’ 1965′ – a 2CD set of BBC recordings, with the customary Spillett essay, on the Rhythm & Blues Records label. It’s only just arrived, so I haven’t heard it yet, bar a few online clips.
Might suit people who like…
music… history… underdogs… happy endings.